lmost 25 million people in the United States are now over the age of 70. This 9 percent of the population is involved in 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, making their special needs and limitations as drivers a concern for law enforcement and traffic safety advocates.
Judges in last year's IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge found an innovative response to this issue in the Florida Highway Patrol entry. Florida's work in the area of mature at-risk drivers made the judges' "nifty 50" list of interesting, innovative, and replicable traffic safety programs.
Florida has made it easier for law enforcement to report to driver's license offices drivers whose skills have declined. The Florida Highway Patrol has also undertaken an effort to educate the public and troopers about the method for reporting drivers in need of evaluation.
The Transportation Research Board has noted that older drivers are second only to drivers under the age of 25 in crash rates per mile traveled. There are differences between the two age groups in the types of crashes they experience and the causes of those crashes. Younger drivers have more speed- and alcohol-involved crashes, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research, while older drivers are more frequently involved in right-of-way violations and crashes during turning maneuvers. Inexperience, poor judgment, and risk taking are crash factors for younger drivers. Older drivers certainly have the experience, but declining physical and mental abilities often affect judgment and the ability to react quickly.
Although they drive fewer miles than drivers in other age groups, older drivers have a higher fatality rate on a per-mile driven basis. Drivers 75 years of age and over, once they are involved in a crash, are three times more likely to die than a young driver.
Intersections are more dangerous for older drivers, accounting for 60 percent of crashes, compared to 50 percent for other age groups. Making a left turn is the maneuver that most frequently results in a crash for the older driver.
As we age, we find several skills necessary for safe vehicle operation in decline. Its important to note that there is no magic age where this degradation of skills begins, meaning some folks continue to drive safely many years after others of the same age have stopped driving. For most of us, decision making and functional, physical limitations top the list of driving skills slipping away, along with medical conditions and vision problems.
Crash statistics indicate that many older drivers have adapted to their changing vision by driving less at night. The way our eyes react to light decreases our ability to discern objects in low light conditions and makes it more difficult to adapt to glare from bright headlights and other sources.
Declining vision is probably the easiest condition to detect in the driver's licensing process. Florida now requires that any driver over the age of 80 submit to a vision test when renewing their driver's license. The test may be taken free of charge at driver's license offices or may be conducted by the applicant's private licensed health care provider. If a vision problem is detected, the applicant is referred to his or her eye doctor before being allowed to renew their driving privileges.
In addition to driving less at night, older drivers adapt to their changing skills in other ways. They will tend to avoid high traffic times and locations, make shorter trips, and not venture out in bad weather. Those who are aware of their limitations may choose to rely on public transit, friends, and family for transportation.
Unfortunately, there are drivers who do not adapt to the changes occurring in their lives. Because of dementia or other conditions, they may not be aware of the danger they pose. Others lack a support structure of family and friends to get them to the places they need to go. These are the ones who most often come to our attention, because of a crash or a violation or because a family member has sought our help in getting them to stop driving.
For more information on the Florida initiative, see the report "The Effects of Aging on Driving Ability" on the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Web site at (www.hsmv.state.fl.us/ddl/atriskdriver.pdf). ■